CPB Office of the Ombudsman

WGBH's Good Neighbor Policy Criticized

Joel Kaplan

July 31, 2012

In early April Boston residents who didn't have cable and tried to turn on several area television stations found out they had no signal. It turns out there was a problem with the television antenna. Public television station WGBH stepped in and let some of the commercial stations borrow its antenna and so the commercial stations were back on the air in less than two days.

Among the stations affected were the Boston CBS affiliate, WBZ, and its sister station, myTV38. Ro Dooley Webster, the stations' director of communications explained what happened to its viewers:

"We are pleased to report that WBZ-TV and myTV38 are once again broadcasting over the air. Technicians were successful in identifying the problem, and service has been restored to viewers who receive the stations through over the air broadcast transmission. Thanks are due in large part to the cooperation of WGBH and WCVB for temporarily relocating the affected stations to their antennas so that every station can return to broadcasting over the air while permanent repairs are made. We thank viewers for their patience while we were resolving the problem, and we are pleased to be back on the air."

Nevertheless, Steve Lavergne complains that, while the generosity is admirable, it is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money:

"I would like to request an inquiry into whether equipment purchased with funds previously granted from the CPB to WGBH Boston ("WGBH") for the purpose of RF transmission have been conveyed or are now otherwise being used for the benefit of commercial broadcast stations WBZ-DT and WCVB-DT ("Commercial Stations"). It is my understanding that as of April 2012 a RF failure at the commercial stations resulted in WGBH granting exclusive use of its primary broadcast antenna to the commercial stations to the degradation of its own ability to operate at full power thereby significantly reducing it capacity to distribute PBS content. While this type of generosity is admirable, it is not reasonable to expect public broadcasting to suffer for the benefit of commercial interests for the now projected long-term resolution of the matter. I would appreciate a thoughtful answer to my request."

We asked Marita Rivero, vice president for radio and television at WGBH, to answer this complaint and explain how the lending of the antenna to the commercial stations came about. She said this was the first time such an incident had occurred.

"When the failure occurred, all the stations got together to discuss how to deal with it," Ms. Rivero said. "In the course of the conversation the idea came up that the lower (unaffected) antenna could accommodate all the stations that were off the air if WGBH 2 could move from there to an auxiliary antenna. We felt that was the right thing to do, since it would mean that everyone could get back on the air (including our WGBX 44). So it was a shared idea, and we feel it was for the greater good of our community."

Ms. Rivero conceded that the antenna WGBH moved to does not have the same reach as its own antenna. As a result, audiences on the periphery of the signal in Rhode Island, Connecticut and to the west and north were affected—those at the outer end of WGBH's coverage.

Ms. Rivero said that she does not believe the offer to help the commercial stations was inappropriate. "Remember, this is not sharing a frequency, it is stations sharing a tower and antenna. This is not an unusual situation and I believe there are others around the country with this same kind of set-up."

In terms of Mr. Lavergne's question about the appropriateness of this arrangement, here is a statement from CPB's Media Strategies office:

"It is common for stations in a given market to come to the aid of another that is off the air. If the situation was reversed and WGBH needed assistance, it is likely that the commercial stations in the area would have provided similar support. Many public television stations share towers, antennas and other transmission facilities with commercial stations (San Francisco, Cleveland, and D.C. are examples). So, this is a common and accepted practice, as long as WGBH does not give away or transfer ownership of publicly funded equipment. We also know that WGBH filed a Legal Special Temporary Authority with the FCC to operate at a lower power."

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